WA, OR State Legislatures Propose Bills to Solve Local News Media Crisis & It’s a Good Thing
Commentary by Steven A. Smith
American news media are in crisis, and the cities and towns news organizations have served are seeing those organizations shrink to mere shadows or cease to exist altogether.
This is not news.
The crisis has been developing for decades, accelerating in the last 10 years, and perhaps reaching a tipping point from which news media at the local level cannot recover.
The marketplace has offered no relief and has, in fact, led to this crisis.
So, it is clearly time to step outside the marketplace and look for solutions from the public sector.
That is not easy for a veteran journalist to say. For most of my career, I fought against any government involvement in the news business. But the world has changed and so my views have changed.
Now steps are being taken in both Washington and Oregon to address the media crisis.
A friend and former colleague, Doug Bates, alerted me to Oregon House Bill 2605, named the Protect Local Journalism Act, now moving through the Legislature. Loosely modeled on the proposed federal Local Journalism Sustainability Act, now stalled in Congress, the Oregon proposal would fund a new grant program to offer immediate financial aid to local news operations and startups, especially in rural Oregon.
Meanwhile in Washington, the Legislature is considering a measure that would support development of a media and news literacy curriculum for K-12 schools. The bill would establish a two-year, two-step program to develop such a curriculum for the state superintendent of public instruction and would establish a grant program to support curriculum development.
At first look, it might seem the two bills are unrelated. In Oregon, public resources would directly support news organizations. In Washington, public schools might eventually teach news literacy.
But they are intimately connected. Rampant media illiteracy has eroded support for traditional mainstream news organizations. Helping support surviving businesses or start new ones may slow the erosion until new generations learn to appreciate what mainstream news provides a democracy.
An early version of the Oregon legislation provided for tax credits and other incentives for individuals who subscribe to a newspaper as is proposed at the federal level. But that provision will be removed leaving the direct grant program.
As noted in this excellent report from the Oregon Capital Chronicle, “House Bill 2605 would pay for a resource center to give emergency grants and other support to local journalists and newsrooms and create a workgroup that would produce a report by November 2024 about the state of the journalism industry in Oregon and recommendations for potential policy changes or funding.”
The legislation would place responsibility for this effort with the Agora Journalism Center and the Fund for Oregon Rural Journalism. Passing funds through the center would put some distance between government and news organizations, which quiets some of my ethical concerns. But all involved need to be certain that the right people are in place to implement the program. Quality leadership is essential for a program that will be highly scrutinized in Oregon and nationally.
In his written testimony to the House Rules Committee last week, Doug Bates wrote of his own experience starting an underfunded digital news site for the Highway 58 corridor east of Eugene.
“The weekly newspapers that served these Oregon communities have ceased publishing,” Bates wrote. “Eugene’s struggling newspaper and TV stations have quit covering local news in these towns. The resulting news desert threatens the economic viability and social fabric of these communities while giving rise to petty corruption in local government, free from scrutiny except for the (digital start-up) Highway 58 Herald.”
That is why Oregon’s HB 2605 is so important. When local news organizations go away, there is no institution left to watchdog government or businesses or to provide citizens the information they need to exercise their citizenship.
In Washington, the proposed legislation does not provide any immediate help to the struggling news industry. What it does address is the appalling lack of new literacy that has led to the current distrust of mainstream media and the embrace of fake news, outright falsity and dangerous conspiracy theories.
The legislation, which seems to be moving through the Legislature with bipartisan support, could eventually establish a media and news literacy curriculum for Washington’s public schools. The curriculum could also address online behavioral issues such as cyber bullying.
Even if it is approved during the current legislative session, it will be several years before such a curriculum is in place.
When I first started teaching at the University of Idaho, I was able to attend a workshop at the News Literacy Institute at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York. The Institute, under the leadership of Idaho’s own Dean Miller, created an outstanding news literacy curriculum for high schools and colleges.
Back at Idaho, I proposed that news literacy courses utilizing that curriculum be required for all incoming freshmen. The idea was a non-starter, never moved beyond my own imaginings. But I was able to incorporate significant portions of that curriculum in my entry-level Journalism 100 course.
And students reacted well. They seemed thirsty for help in navigating the increasingly fraught digital space. That unit, which took up four weeks of a 16-week semester, was among the most popular.
The Oregon legislation is one way to provide immediate help in bringing quality local journalism to under-served communities. That is a stop-gap step, not sustainable for the long-term in my view.
The Washington legislation holds the promise of producing new generations of news consumers who will appreciate and demand quality journalism where they live and understand how quality journalism is essential to the democracy they desire and enjoy.
The combination could be potent.
There are no magic bullets to solve the news media crisis. But the Oregon and Washington measures are good-faith efforts to make a difference.
Let’s hope both win approval and that each state copies the other in moving forward.
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Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full-time teaching at the end of May 2020. He writes a weekly opinion column. Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms until his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an M.A. in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a B.S. in journalism from the University of Oregon.